The challenge with teaching creativity

Attempting to “teach” creativity is difficult. I would argue it can’t be done well in our standard, current educational environment.

When your expectations involve creativity, the task of training or optimizing for it becomes difficult, if not entirely impossible. How do you measure what’s truly creative when there are expectations set? How can anyone value whether something is creative or not if creative ideas exist, by nature, outside of expectations?

As Cevin Soling mentions in Can Any School Foster Pure Creativity?:

“Creativity is based on thinking unconventionally, having time to daydream or simply reflect, understanding that there is no single right answer, and appreciating and valuing failure. All of these experiences run counter to what’s measured, and thus valued, in the public school system.”

A popular retelling of this exact situation comes from Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk How schools kill creativity. In the talk, Sir Robinson tells us:

“I heard a great story recently…of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, 'I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, 'But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, 'They will in a minute.'”

Note the reaction the teacher had in this story when she heard what the little girl was drawing. Rather than viewing the girl’s approach as creative and imaginative, the teacher has an initial reaction to explain to the girl that she simply couldn’t be drawing god, nobody knows what he looks like.

In teaching creativity, we run into this problem again and again: how do educators remove their own biases to make way for natural creative insights? How do we, as advocates for promoting creativity in the workplace (as an example), get out of our own way?

Rather than trying to teach creativity (the act of generating unique and valuable thoughts), it’s worthwhile to instead teach and actively promote the attributes that make up creativity.

Exercises that build confidence, that promote curiosity and exploration, that force participants to be resourceful, those are worthwhile endeavors that build creativity.

We also know that these are attributes that can be taught without hindering the process of teaching or grading them. We can teach students and employees to be resourceful and curious by offering them playful challenges. We can instill a sense of humility in those we teach, and encourage a mindset that allows restful breaks whenever they’re needed.

If we want to teach creativity to our children, peers, co-workers, or ourselves, we have to focus on the individual attributes that drive it, not merely on the act of generating ideas.

To teach and encourage creativity yourself, look to the various attributes that cause creativity. When those aspects are built or strengthened, the result is almost always some level of creative output.

Photo via Flickr.